music producer

Psychology and the music producer

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To make a great recording, sometimes an music producer has to do it all. From communicating, coaxing the best possible performance, and keeping an artist comfortable, a lot of a producer’s skills have little to do with recording techniques.

Jon Marc Weiss is an accomplished recording engineer, studio designer, and musician with over 20 years’ experience. Echoes’ Andre Calilhanna sat with Jon to talk about being both an engineer and producer, some of the tricks of recording a good performance, and how to handle things when they start going off the rails.

Is it common to have a person who is solely acting as a music producer on an independent music production?
In higher level projects, there is going to be a record producer, and the producer is going to talk to the artist and act as a liaison with the engineer. The audio engineer is going to do very little communication with the artist. But there’s not always a producer, even on some bigger projects. I’d say 40% of the sessions I’ve worked on in my 20-year career had producers in the room.

A lot of times the producer is the artist, and sometimes they want to make all the decisions, they don’t look for any advice from the sound recording engineer. They see the engineer as someone who just pushes buttons. Others see the audio engineer as the person who makes them sound amazing, and they have high expectations.

So that means on 60% of the sessions where I work as a recording engineer, I’m actually doing a lot of the producing. I make small suggestions about improving the music, but the majority of the time when I’m not pressing buttons and EQing stuff, I’m working with the artist directly and talking back and forth with them about getting the best take. My job is not only to make the sound recording and handle that side of things, but also to work with the artist and make sure they’re happy and that they’re getting the most of the experience and their money – whether it’s their first time in the studio or their hundredth.

How important is it to set expectations for who is responsible for what before the sessions begin?
Very important. A lot of times it comes to the point where I have to say to the group, “I have to just talk to one person.” I’ll accept criticism and suggestions from everyone, but it gets to the point where the guitar player wants something, and the bass player comes in and he wants something different. You have to find a point person. If you’ve got conflicting stuff coming from all these different people, you’re putting the engineer in a difficult situation.

Before the session, you also have to sit with the artist and get a feel for what the style of music is, and how much experience they have in the studio. I think that’s really important for the recording engineer to know, to know how to coach the person. Someone who’s recorded in studios for years and knows how to work the mic and headphones is going to put the headphones on and start singing and you’re probably going to get what you need. When it’s someone’s first time in the studio, or maybe they go in once a year, they’re going to be a bit greener and they’re going to need some coaching. Not just with their performance, but the way they’re working the mic. Or maybe they’re crinkling papers and you have to tell them, “Hey, the microphone’s really sensitive.” Some people don’t know that. I’ve been in sessions where we had to mute the space in between lines so that all the extraneous noise didn’t go to tape. Sometimes our job is to help the talent learn how to be a better musician.

I’ve found that the bigger the artist, the more they tend to let the recording engineer do what they do. Part of it is they’re picking you – they have 20 different studios they can afford to go to and they’re usually choosing to go to yours because of the engineer’s reputation. Whereas you have somebody coming in off the street, and it’s their first time in a studio and they want to control everything, and that usually turns into a big mess.

What’s the most important thing to focus on as a music producer?
Number one: enthusiasm. Support the artist and be enthusiastic about what they’re doing. Even if you’re telling them it’s not a great take, be enthusiastic about the fact that you think they can do a better job. You have to be good at focusing the artist and getting them to do the best they can. That’s obviously different from one performer to the next.

People are very sensitive about their artistry, so you really have to watch what you say. You have to make sure that nothing is condescending and that all of the tips and feedback you give are very constructive. Like, if the artist says, “Ah, that take sucked,” you might say, “OK, let’s roll that again, I think you can get a better one,” not, “Yeah, you’re right, that really sucked.” There’s psychology there for sure.

Sometimes you can get a great performance in terms of dynamics and emotion, but the singer is having difficulty singing in tune. As an engineer you have to deal with that. It’s common that you’ll be working with an artist and there are some bad notes, but the energy and the performance are so good. That’s when the producer might decide to come back at a later time and surgically improve the take – I’ve done it with timing, I’ve done it with pitch, I’ve taken a great chorus and copied it and pasted it in other places to keep the energy at a certain level.

Also, if you’re an engineer, and you’re there and you’re not digging the music at all, you can give some bad vibes off. I don’t care what level you’re at as an engineer, different levels of talent are going to come through. You may not be as thrilled with today’s session as you were with yesterday’s, but you have to just deal with what you have, make the best of it, and stay upbeat. The worst thing that can happen, as an artist, is to go into a studio to work with an engineer who is just a dead fish. They’re not giving any feedback, they’re not into the music – that will kill the whole vibe. You have to bring a certain energy level, and you have to be consistent. You’ll always get a better take than if you’re negative and don’t try to help the artist achieve their best – whatever that might be.

Would you say creating a comfortable environment is important, too?
Yes, absolutely. I had this one session, with this vocalist, a young woman, and her dad and her husband were there, and they thought she was going to be the next big thing. But we just couldn’t get a good take out of her. Her dad was totally on her – he was like, “Why, when you’re in front of your mirror in your bedroom, you do such a good take, and then we come into the studio and you can barely perform?” Part of the problem was certainly that her dad and her husband were putting way too much pressure on her. You’re not going to get a great performance out of anyone that way.

Another big thing to remember is that this is supposed to be fun. When it starts to become work, it’s time to change the focus. I asked her, “What’s different about when you’re in your room?” And obviously, she’s in a comfortable environment and she’s relaxed in her own room – so guess what we did? We brought the mirror, and her bedside table, and candles from her room – I suggested she start burning candles in her room when she rehearsed – and you wouldn’t believe it, but it actually worked. She just needed something familiar to make her feel at home.

Bringing a little bit of home along is a great idea.
Well, sure. When you’re rehearsing, it’s typically in a room with the whole band, and everyone steps on each other enough to create this blanket of comfort. Then you step into a studio and it can be almost a clinical environment. You’ve got to be careful as an engineer not to make it too clinical and sterile. You’ve got to keep the smiles going and keep the vibe going.

I remember you saying that bass players often have a difficult transition from live to studio.
The bass player tries so hard to get that tone that they hear onstage. When you record bass guitar, it tends not to sound like what it does when they’re standing next to their amp. I’ve just come to find that bass players tend to be the most difficult to please in the recording environment. Especially when you’re working in a mix situation, and the bass player says, “Hey, can you solo my bass? I want my bass to sound like Geddy Lee (Rush).” And you’re thinking, “That’s not going to work in the context of this music and this recording.”

The bass needs to stand out, but not stand out too much. The go-to frequency to pull out of the bass is 250 Hz, because that just muddies up the mix when you’ve got the bass in there with the guitars and the drums and everything else. You start losing the definition of the individual instruments. When you’re working with the mix, it’s a puzzle, you don’t want to have all these overlapping frequencies. Now some instruments are going to overlap each other by default. But you have to work to make room for each instrument. You need to scoop out the drums to make room for the bass, and scoop out the bass to make room for the guitar – it’s literally a puzzle.

So when you solo the track, the bass player’s not going to be very happy with the tone on tape, in many cases. I’ve had so much trouble with that. I’ve also had some incredible outcomes, where in the end, the bass player’s like “Wow, that sounds so good in the mix! I totally get why you needed to put that top end on the bass.”

Got any tricks to settle down a nervous performer? Sometimes they’re shredding while they’re warming up and then the red light goes on and they totally freeze.
There are lot of cool techniques to settle an artist – a lot of times they’re just nervous. Sometimes for a guitar player or a bass player, it’s the fact that they’re on the other side of that window that’s making them nervous. So you run a cable to the other room, mic the amp, and let the player sit in the studio with the engineer, right in front of the monitors, and that can break the ice.

Sometimes you just have to let them know that there’s time, there’s no pressure and no hurry, and I’m not going to press record until they’re ready. Of course, a lot of times you’re still pressing record to see if you can catch something magical. In this one studio, we had a little cap that we could put over the light so you couldn’t see that it was recording – that helped with some people.

Jon Marc Weiss recently opened Kiva Productions right outside of Philadelphia in Hollywood, PA to develop local and national acts.

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49 thoughts on “Psychology and the music producer

  1. That is what the Music producer is for, and it sounds like you had a crappy experience with an unproven engineer and a drummer who unfortunately confused producer with executive producer.

  2. I agree enthusiasm is important to bring the best out of artists and get them to be positive and keep performing. When a producer becomes condescending, it can destroy a performance and have a negative impact on their reputation for future performances. It is definitely a mix of skill and psychology to get the job done right.

  3. As a recording artist, once I hired an engineer to record my music with no producer on the job.  I figured I would produce the record myself.  The engineer did a lot to spark production ideas, but it not being his job, he didn’t do anything to help me follow through with them.  His knowledge of producing records, though limited, steered me in the right direction to go and learn about things on my own.  I couldn’t have done it without him.  BTW it took me a year to figure it out on my own, even with the help!

  4. To: Jon Marc Weiss… Inspiring to read such a candid article!  Good job. I’ve been recording 30+ years and love to hear everyone’s take on the process.  Lots of laughs with all the emotional comments as well. The art of recording and performing… there is nothing like it on the planet.  Part science, psych, audio, surprise, joy and more than I have to contemplate at the moment. 

  5. As a seasoned bass player I have to say I often feel I am the most difficult to please in the studio in my respective projects.  The most comfortable thing for me is just going a little old school and using an Audix F14 on the cab.  Problem sometimes being that I know engineers like the dry signal from a DI because it is easier to EQ for the song.  It all depends on what the song needs and how well the engineer knows the sound of the band.  Great interview!

    1. Hey Dan, true that! Even though bass is the simplest and easiest instrument to play aside from the skin flute which btw…bassists usually start out as floutists..not all but many… with that said, even though bassists are a staple in every band and bass tracks ‘should’ in theory be quickly recorded & mixed the fastest due to the simplicity of the bass… too often and ironically enough, bassists are the most difficult to work with in a studio and/or even band pratcice and gigs. Below is a link that sheds some light to the mysteries of bassists. Enjoy.

  6. I have been a music producer for over thirty-years; and for those 30+ years my role was and still is being involved in all aspects of the making of a commercially produced release or professional demo. This includes preparing the initial line-item budget, music preparation and legal issues, production, sound consulting and  liason between the artist(s) and the engineer and much more.
    Anyone can say that they are a producer; but what do they do to successfully shape the finished product and beyond?
    The above is a very good article and helps to exemplify the need and requirement to be a professional producer that will make the difference for our music community.

    Neil J. Cacciottolo
    President/Executive Producer/Attorney Associate
    Sunset Records America.

    1. :-)Right on Neil! The word/title “Producer” is so misused and abused it’s ridiculous…. if an artist is signed to a big time label then they use ‘real producers’ who are connected in the industry and help get the product on radio, promorion, etc…. but too often the neighborhood hole in the wall mom & pop studios have engineers who tell the band they are producing them and all this big talk of label deals etc when in that case the band is usually the true producer and the engineer is just talking b.s. to keep the band motivated to pay their bill…lol.

      I’ve told many a pseudo-producer to cut the crap, we’re not high school kids with dillusions of grandeusr and we will finish the project and pay you…just give us a quality recording.

      Studios have lost my return business because of big talk with no action… and after I discussed with the ‘producer’…often a studio owner and the engineer all in one not to tell me what big plans they have for our ‘hit record’ but to actually take action, push/market/promote the project and tell me after what you did for me with your big ‘industry connections.’

      Typically the biggest talkers do nothing but take your money…

      I have a joke regarding these types… “What is the difference between a used car saleman and a record producer?”
      A: Not much except the type of cars they drive 🙂

  7. So, now I’m wearing three hats and still not getting enough head.

    Artist, Engineer, Producer (and usually) mastering.

    Politics is the enemy of great art.

    Quote of the Week

    I don’t think we’ve ever had a producer. We’ve had records that were produced by people, but that could mean anything, really.

    We worked with quite an accomplished producer back in 1992 when we did 12 singles.

    To be honest, he was there only half the time. He’d kind of pop his head in there from time to time to check in which was fine, because it meant we were able to get on with it. I’ve been doing this so long that I know what sounds good; I don’t necessarily know how to explain why.

    But I think that most engineers can work it out and make it sound better when you say, “I don’t think it’s really happening.”

    –David Gedge of The Wedding Present »


    Personally, I have three calls waiting while talking to a fourth about upcoming, unrelated projects while nodding and frowning alternately, randomly at the engineer behind the board and the band in the studio and control room.

    This shows them I care and believe in their project.

  8. the best engineers in the world when thjey record a pro, they back off and let the pro produce. Brett Kull is probably one the best in the country. he,ll pick up flaws that even a top artist can’t hear. But if you have the talent and the vision, never never ever let an engineer produce your song. You’ll get what he wants and it might be good, but you’re the only one who knows what you want. Engineers are all wanna be producers and if you want your vision on tape, don’t even let them near productioin. take control from the jump and tell em who’s driving. Once they get the message the great engineers tend to just relax and do great work.

    1. Nice condescending attitude buddy. I bet you think you have an abundance of “talent and vision”. Unfortunately most people who go into a studio are talentless wanna be’s with little to no experience while the engineer does it for a living every day.

    2. By saying “Engineers are all wanna be producers” you demonstrate how little you know about studio etiquette. The only time a good engineer steps into that role is when the talent is clueless which based on your post, it’s obvious that you are. I think I speak for all engineers when I say go fuck yourself you egomaniacal prick. I highly doubt you’ve ever made a dime as a musician. If you were a working professional you would have a more respectful attitude regarding the relationship between an engineer and artist. The engineer is an essential part of the creative process that helps an artist fully realize their creative vision. Not just some mindless button pusher who has fallen into a job due to failing at other endeavors like music and producing. We leave the failure to losers like you.

      1. Hey wormy…I know whatcha mean…but do ya have to be so mean about it? An experienced and seasoned engineer picks up lots of production tips and tricks along the way and I always approach studio sessions by telling everyone to put all ideas on the table and if a production idea works, then it works, if not, no harm no fouk and that goes for everyone in the studio for a project.

        A brand new engineer typically concentrates on just the “tekkie side” of the job where as a veteran engineer might suggest enhancements that make the songs/project shine even more. Some examples I experienced are an engineer added a split second break after the chorus and before the next verse and it added a nice “pop” to the song.suggesting and using effects properly is great if the band/artists didn’t think of it first. The key is that during basic tracks recording is that the engineer gets perfeft drum sounds and recorded tracks as typically once the drummer is done, he or she is DONE….and the rest of the band overdubs unless they are contect with their track durings basics. During basic tracks the engineer must listen for a steady tempo from the drummer and not record a roller coaster fluctuation in tempo from the drummer. Shimmering cymbals are nice too 🙂 proper placement of the right type of mics etc.

        The ‘producer’ comes in handy with vocal phrasing and backing vocals arrangements. If an engineer is skilled enough in arranging then great!

        I know the pseudo-producer types people are mentioning here…those are more interested in the sales and finances of the project rather than a pro sounding recording with hooks and commercial radio-ready material.

        You get what you pay for and if you’re engineer offers producton deas, let him/her suggest and then play back and decide if you like it or not.

        Artists/bands must do their homework before contracting with a studio, producer, engineer(s)…..listen to their previous work and decide for yourself if tehy sound fantastic or average or maybe crapola? 😉

        If your producer and/or engineer has worked with succesful artists then that’s a GREAT sign of their credentials and abilties…but you’ll pay more for the major label type producers and engineers.

        So shop around and find the best talent for your bucks….

        Of course, a producer and engineer are only as good as the material they are working with that the artist wrote.

        Don’t expect an engineer or producer to make a hit song out of crappy material…. otherwise you’re just sking your engineer and producer to polish a turd. LOL 😉

        DO HAVE FUN in the studio…be open minded to ideas while having tight arrangements and great hooks going in to the studio… bring at a minimum the “90% solution” to the studio and solid engineers and producers will make your music shine! But bring in great stuff for them to work with.

        Hope all this helps!
        Your pal,

  9. Great article, pretty much what I always say.  One additional great trick is to phrase suggestions as questions, not statements.  “How was the pitch on that line?”  “Can you guys (drummer and bass player) hear each other OK?”  “Were you thinking about the lyrics or the notes as you were singing?”  Etc.  The artist will think it’s THEIR idea to do what you want them to do.  :>)   
    Oh, and when things totally go to hell, as every album project does at some point, I always pull out my Troggs’ “Big Pranny” tape as evidence that things could be even worse!  :>)

  10. Good stuff Jon>I have many more examples of artist/engineer/producer studio vortex,but you are right on with everything>Philly has always been so great for music.

  11. Aurora,

    Thank you so much for your candidness!  I’ ve been recording with the same engineer for 10 years – pretty much in a vacuum as I don’t have a lot of vocalist recording friends.  I am like you and hear EVERYTHING! I thought it was me being too sensitive or not a good enough performer to be able to come into the studio and do it from the heart perfectly in one take.  Pesonally, I don’t think you do get on top of that; it seems part of the process to care about what you do enough and to be courageous enough to know that YOU are the standard for determining quality – no one else.

    Jon – thanks also… have to say I’ve done the same thing – cut and paste is great!!  But usually so much work!!  Check me out at

    check me out at

  12. Good article, I really enjoyed it.

    My favorite story involves an artist who brought in a sax player for one of his songs. They both came in to the studio, the artist sat by me, and the sax player took his place out in the studio. I asked him if he’d had a chance to run through the song prior to coming to the studio, and he replied, “Oh, I listened to it on the way over in the car.”

    I rolled my eyes internally, thinking, “Oh man, this is going to be a long dull session listening to this guy practice this solo”, but gamely said, “Okay, I’ll roll it a few times for you just to let you get the feel of it.”

    So I rolled tape. The sax player started to blow the most perfect solo that you could imagine… and halfway through, the artist turned to me, almost crying, and said, “Oh man, I wish you would have recorded this!”

    I pointed to the red light on the tape deck and said, “Of course I’m recording it!”

    The take was over, the sax player said, “Okay, I’m ready!” We both replied, “No, you’re done!”

    And the punch line of the whole thing is that I now play regularly in a band with both of these guys.

  13. Very good article. 
    A while back I realized that the real challenge for me to conquer was learning to handle different people and getting the most out of them in studio. Engineering comes fairly easy to us as that is what we are good at, but dealing with artists/clients is where we have to be really creative.

  14. Perfect Jon Marc! Hope I can visit you at Kive one day! From Maggie Vee – BEL Studios, Apple Valley

  15. As a vocalist, the ‘in-studio’ session makes me a nervous wreck unless we run a song several times to warm up.  Singing in studio is totally different than performing live, no matter how many times we’ve played the song live.  I sing jazz, and recording is a whole skill set I wish more coaches would workshop, and more engineers were hip to.  I listen back to every note, pronunciation, phrase, timing, tone, pitch, even that little lisp I have that shows up.  I cannot for the life of me NOT hear all that, which takes away the FUN of it!.   It takes an incredibly supportive producer/engineer, not to mention musicians who actually LIKE and RESPECT playing with vocalists (some hate it and there’s alot of eye rolling, which clogs up the positive energy pipe) to lend me the psychological support I need that will get me through the session.  The last session we did, we performed like the old days: 10 songs in a row, live, over a 4 hour span, start to finish, sometimes twice.  Phew!  Later, I realized I’d let my drummer (who was paying for the session)  act as producer, and assumed he and the engineer (who ended up co-producing) had good ears.  Both, however, were not not aware that my sound was distorting (I had no screen on the mike, so I’d close my eyes while singing, then open them and be too close to the mike), so in the final mix, alot of what we did was uneven, distorted, and just plain didn’t sound good.  We did listen back during recording, but I trusted that alot of the ‘bad” I heard would be corrected in the mix down.  My drummer SWEARS by the CD, but the mix was so unbalanced that I wasn’t comfortable promoting the CD.  It was enough to book us a one week stint in Japan, but then the Tsunami hit, and we were cancelled.  Call me self-critical, but I’ve heard good recordings and mixes, and comparatively, ours was not even close to the warmth and depth I’d hoped for.  So how do you get on top of all that BEFORE the session, no matter WHO is producing /engineering?

    1. You don’t get on top of all of that. That is what the producer is for, and it sounds like you had a crappy experience with an unproven engineer and a drummer who unfortunately confused “producer” with “executive producer”. Just because someone is paying for the recording doesn’t mean they are a producer. That’s like buying a diploma online and then saying you are a surgeon. Except for the loss of life. (Unless you are working with Phil Spector). No screen? That’s just…Vocal Mic 101. 

      If your name is on the record, the onus is on *you* to interview the engineer, get an idea of how s/he operates, make your concerns known, and not sing a note until you find the right person. Your studio nerves will likely leave you with the right person there, because s/he will understand that you need to warm up. You also should make sure the producer/engineer knows what they are doing by listening to work they have done already. In short: if you end up with a crap record, it’s probably because you hired a crap engineer. 

      I’m a vocalist/songwriter/instrumentalist, and I’ve had my fair share of negative experiences with engineers who thought they were the only one on earth to ever purchase Pro Tools. But those were side jobs…people who hired me to perform or sing on their records. I wouldn’t work with those people on my own project. I have worked with the same producer/engineer for over 10 years, and we made 4 good records. If I asked him to, he would take care of hiring musicians who were either compatible with performing with singers, or who would come in when I wasn’t there and put down tracks for me to listen to later. I now engineer and produce my own singles, and record and produce for others as well, but I know my limitations…I wouldn’t make a jazz record for someone else at this point in my career. 

      If I were going to make another full length record, and my producer was not available, it would be unfortunate, but not difficult to find a new producer. I’d just listen to records I liked, find out who produced  them, see if we could come to an understanding about expectations on both sides, and go for it. 

    2. Often good producers catch these things. Not only that, a good producer will realize that a singers “live” energy is not happening, and some steps can be taken.  For one get 5-10 close friends together and have them be an audience for your recording.  Nerves in the studio are usually fear of failure, nerves on stage are fear of social disapproval.  If a singer accels at live performance, then their social acceptance can help overcome the nerves of the studio.

    3. If the engineer was watching the meters he or she would know they you were clipping and should have adjusted accordingly. They should have had you sing your loudest part before recording to check levels. An engineer should also have known about correct panning to give all componets their own space. I would say get someone who is a little more knowledgable next time. It is a misconception about “fixing it in the mix” syndrone. Always start off with the best recording possible. That would be like taking a blurry picture and photoshopping the blur away. At the end of the day it is still not a very good picture. It seems you caught some of this. Perhaps you should have engineered yourself lol. Keep pushing on and achieving your musical pursuits.

  16. This is a very useful article.  I record singers a lot, and pride myself on getting them to feel comfortable.  I have an amusing story that I sometimes tell about an artist I recorded who did hundreds of takes at several sessions of the first two words of a song until he was satisfied. When you hear the record, the line sounds totally spontaneous and you’d never know how much work went into it. Telling that story seems to help nervous singers. 

    Also, the way my studio is set up the sight line into the vocal booth is off to the side.  Normally when I’m tracking a vocalist, we are oriented parallel to each other, without a lot of eye contact, nor am I generally looking at the vocalists while they’re singing.  I think that this is easier on vocalists than the normal setup where everyone is peering at them through the control room glass.

    Also setting up the cue and monitor system so that the vocalist can always talk through to the control room, even when they’re listening back to a take, can give them a sense of being in control and being noticed and responded to.

    It’s also important to quickly get the headphone mix to a point where the singer is comfortable – which will be different for every singer.  I usually just monitor the headphone mix in the control room and make sure I have headroom to make any and all adjustments as needed.

  17. This was a great article. It sums me up to a “T” as to how I work with others as well. I’ll never change anyone’s art, I’ll help them ENHANCE what’s already there and give loads of encouragement. Collaboration is key!

  18. Awesome thought.
    I learn to say positive things about other people bad takes but not too much that it may sound sarcastic.

    But the most important point I always remind my band is to have fun and do it for the right reason.

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